Small Firm Fights Terrorism with High Tech Imaging
Just because a company qualifies as a small business, doesn’t mean it can’t run with the big dogs.
That’s the takeaway from Kitware, a firm based just outside of Albany, N.Y., that has used its flexibility and collective brainpower to develop what it believes to be the visual Rosetta Stone to help turn terabytes of raw video footage from spy drones into intelligence that will give the U.S. another leg up on terrorists.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but only if you know what those words mean. Making that translation is the daunting task that the military and the intelligence community face every day.
The company, which specializes in computer visualization, medical imaging and computer vision, may be small by comparison, but it plays in the same league as such Department of Defense (DoD) heavy hitters as Honeywell, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. And it often wins.
Last month, the company received an $11 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to lead Phase II of its Video and Image Retrieval and Analysis Tool (VIRAT) program.
For Phase II, Kitware has combined the majority of the Phase I participants into a single unified team including six leading defense technology companies: Honeywell Laboratories, Raytheon, Mayachitra Inc., BAE Systems, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin.
VIRAT is a revolutionary video analysis system that has the capability to look at massive amounts of video, figure out what’s going on and who’s involved and present the results clearly and intuitively to video analysts.
It keys on the behavior of people and things, in essence providing human-like analysis on a massive, multitasking scale. The goal is create situational awareness so the computer can interpret what’s going on around it from sights, sounds and motions.
It determines what people are doing and if their activities are suspicious. Is that person walking or running? What is that group of people doing? Is somebody doing something with that vehicle?
VIRAT may be the Rosetta Stone the intelligence community has been looking for to help answer those questions. It parses the pixels.
“It effectively provides a host of other eyes,” said Dr. Anthony Hoogs, co-leader of the VIRAT team.
Phase I of the program focused on developing algorithms and systems; in Phase II, Kitware will deploy a VIRAT prototype.
“The goal is to create a prototype system and transition it into use by war fighters,” Hoogs said.
Kitware uses a learning-based approach to teach the computer about patterns and sequences of actions, he said.
“Much of what we do involves educating the computer,” Hoogs said. “The human visual system is remarkably efficient and is able to quickly understand change in the visual scene such as a change in lighting. Humans don’t get bothered when the sun goes behind clouds. The challenge is how we get the computer to understand changes in scale, viewpoint and lighting.”
Computer vision, Hoogs said, had its roots in artificial intelligence (AI) in the late ‘60s. It branched away from AI in the ‘80s and became its own discipline, incorporating much of AI and a bit of psychology.
The key to human action recognition, Hoogs said, is object recognition. The further refinement of human action recognition and the ability to blend this with biometrics — expression recognition — and cultural nuance is the frontier of computer vision science today.
“Object recognition has seen enormous increases in capability in the last 10 years,” he said. “The last six to eight years have seen breakthroughs in human action recognition.”
To get a rudimentary idea of VIRAT’s signal processing and human recognition capabilities, Hoogs said, look at the way that Picasa, Google’s image-handling program, is able to recognize faces and organize your albums.
The least-challenging aspect of his work at Kitware, Hoogs said, is competing with the corporate giants in the DARPA ecosystem.
“That’s part of the fun,” he said.
But don’t call the company “small.” To Will Schroeder, Kitware’s president, CEO and co-founder, size is a nonstarter.
“We don’t feel small,” he said. “We feel engaged around the world.”
In sports terms, Kitware plays heavier than its weight. One potential customer in Europe, when told of the company’s actual size, told Schroeder, “We thought you were like 300.”
Two-thirds of software revenue today comes from providing services, not selling proprietary code, Schroeder said.
“The service model is huge and that’s where we’re playing,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. We create a lot of really cool software and release through a passive market model. We throw stuff out there and people starting carrying it back.”
That model has paid off for Kitware. The company, which was founded in 1998 by five co-workers in General Electric’s Corporate R&D Center, has grown from 42 employees in 2008 to more than 80 today and will post revenues this year of $15 million. From 2005 to 2009 it posted revenue growth of 172.2 percent. From an employee perspective, the company is sticky — all five of the founders are still actively engaged in the company, Schroeder said.
“We are, by definition, a very collaborative company,” he said. “Because we collaborate, we find people knocking on our door. Agility is the future of software. We try to find really talented people. The way we’re going to grow is to identify technical leaders in various disciplines and let them create their own niche.”
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